Spiritual -- But Not Religious by Deacon Tom Fox


fox_tom_1It wouldn’t take too long being around this deacon before you’d find out he is a well-intentioned man but with many of the failings of Peter before Pentecost or Paul before his fall from his horse.

One of my failings is my lack of patience (God help me I hope it isn’t lack of tolerance) for parents of newborn babies who come to seek baptism when it becomes obvious they don’t practice the faith to much of any degree — nor do they have the intention to do so. Now before you jump down to the response area, anxious to chew me out for missing opportunities to teach and gently encourage people to a loving practice of the faith — hear me out.

This seems to most often happen related to baptisms, but I have surely experienced it with weddings. I also have experienced it when a son or daughter comes in and begins to tell me how committed to the Catholic faith that ‘dear old mom’ was and how the kids have decided they know what mom would want for her funeral…. often including scattering her ashes over some mountain range. But I digress.

My failings at being as loving and patient as I really want to be is when in the course of getting to know the people and the reason for our time together, I begin to find out that they are: SPIRITUAL — BUT NOT RELIGIOUS!

Do you have members in your family who describe themselves as such?

I won’t go into particulars — but someone I know quite well has a Facebook page, and in the area where you list religious views, this person lists ‘My Own.’ And when my wife and I lived back in the beauty of the Colorado Rockies — you might hear people opining in a local coffee shop about how they love to go be with God (or a Higher Power or That Special Power….) up there in the aspen trees.

Now I don’t mean that God doesn’t sometimes make His most holy presence known in the clean mountain air and the noise of quaking aspen leaves. But just exactly what does Spiritual = Yes, Religious = No mean?
Does the person have a soul? Are they aware of that? Do fresh breezes and gorgeous vistas nourish their soul? Perhaps so — but what do they know of the Trinity? What does God want them to know about living life? Does the Spiritual = yes statement mean that religion is an impediment to spirituality. This would be interesting to Jesus and his followers who spent virtually every Sabbath in the temple or synagogue.

And –now that I think of this area of church practice — I visited the catacombs in Rome some years ago. People died — martyred sometimes within minutes of being found to be practicing ‘church stuff’ (we would prefer to call it Mass, thank you). Their bodies were wrapped in linen and put inside the thousands of niches that are visible today.

The people who sign up for ‘Spirituality Yes But Religious No’ organization aren’t bad folks. And — when a young couple comes in to see me for, perhaps a baptism of their child, I often share my testimony: “I’ve been out in the world — and for lots of years I didn’t practice the faith.
But some things happened and now I’m very, very committed to being a Catholic. So much so that I gave up my free life to become a deacon in the Church.” I wait – hoping they will ask for details and I can share more of my conversion and joy at being a fully alive Catholic.

What I often get is some variant such as:
-the folks wants us to do this
-my grandparents are coming and they believe in this
-I was baptized so I want that for the baby

How do such folks believe their lives will be enhanced or that the child is improved by actions they don’t believe in? Will they return to Church faithfully? In later years how will they deal with sickness and death? Will the child come back for religious education classes and make a First Confession and First Communion? No matter how they stutter for answers to questions such as these — what you can sense is that they may not even be spiritual — they just want to do what they want to do and don’t want to consider truth, absolutes or the meaning of Christ’s life and death and His gift of the Church, born at Pentecost.

And so — from time to time, I have to take the sin of impatience and being judgmental into Confession. Sometimes it’s not as bad as others — I guess it’s the times when I’m closer to a spiritual ‘being’ rather than a churchy deacon sort of action.

Deacon Tom

Copyright 2010 Deacon Tom Fox


About Author

Deacon Tom Fox and his wife Dee are co-hosts of the CATHOLIC VITAMINS Podcast for over 6 1/2 years. Tom has also been a member of the Catholic Mom columnists team for eight years, and was a regular contributor to the Catholic Moments Podcast for three years. Most recently, Deacon Tom has been leading a project to bring Catholic radio to the north central Arizona community where he and Dee reside. Blessings!

1 Comment

  1. Hi Tom,
    Great article, great topic. (thanks for writing!) You have described me perfectly – I was raised Catholic, fell away from the faith. I did not attend church, did not even pray – but still wanted to be married in the church, and my son to be baptized there. I believed Jesus was the Son of God, but I was far from Him, and far from virtue or holiness.

    Several years later after finding myself in dire straights, I did return to “god” – but to a god of my own creation. At this point I used to also say the same thing. “I’m Spiritual, not religious” – usually with an attitude that revealed distain for anyone who followed someone else’s ideas of God.

    The heart of the matter was that I was looking for a direct experience – a working relationship with God that I did not think I would find through the church. I saw the church more as a bunch of distant theory and set of rules – and after all, if God was to be found through these things wouldn’t I have already found Him since I used to be in the church when I was younger? (Faulty questioning at best! It was rebellion, defiance, arrogance and not a small amount of fear on my part.)

    After finding that the god of my own creation was empty, Jesus was good and merciful enough to call me and take me back to Him. (you are correct to question whether the “Spiritual not religious” experiences are based on the Truth of God). I was such an unholy creature that I was not fit to set foot in the church and be among people of varying virtue. I did not fit. I needed guidance, nurturing and time to grow – how to take an unholy and wicked person such as myself and become a member of His body. I am a much harsher judge than you and I feared you. It was not until Jesus showed me how we are all One in His Spirit that I understood the body of His church. The fear of you fell away and was replaced with love and compassion. I still am lacking in many virtues, but now you don’t have to be perfect either. God is truly is patient, merciful, compassionate and loving.

    I now find that religion is very compatible with spirituality. The difference is my own perception and participation. (Jesus said “Whomsoever WILL” and “be doers of the word, not hearers”) Those rules that I used to hate are now often comforting since following them is evidence of simple obedience. That bunch of impractical theory doctrine? It is now the rock on which I stand.

    If you find people like me in your church, pray for them, encourage them to participate in their own spiritual life – show them how to have that relationship with Jesus. Show them the practical side of spiritual things and shepherd them (if they will let you). If they won’t, pray for them and let them be, Jesus may call them Himself. They are either wheat or tares, but they might be in your church because they are be a true member of Jesus’ body – even if they do seem to be a cancerous lesion at the moment. “One plants, one waters, but God gives the increase” – their time may not be just yet. Remember Jesus’ words “what you do for the least of these you do for me”. Remember Apostle Paul, Jacob, Rahab the harlot, Mary Magdalene, and the mistakes that John and Peter made. The bible is full of human sinners making mistakes and God using them mightily in His own good time. What a God we serve.

    Blessings to you Tom. Thank you for your service in His body – His church. Thank you for your honesty – it is refreshing.

    In peace,

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